Recently I have been re-watching the TV show The Wire, which many, including me, consider the greatest of all time. For those who are not familiar with it, The Wire is nominally a police procedural, following the drug trade in Baltimore, Maryland, but it is so much more than that, delving deep into the bureaucracy of public education, law enforcement, criminal gangs, and journalism as well as chronicling the decline of the American city.
Perhaps the one overarching theme that unites all of the disparate characters and storylines of this sprawling drama is that of the human being vs. the system. Whether you are a foot soldier of the drug trade slinging dope on a corner, an orphan trying to navigate the public schools, or a district police commander looking to make the community safe, the needs of the system often overwhelm.
In The Wire‘s world, we are all cogs trying to find success and fulfillment in a rigged game where the rules represent roadblocks to overcome. One way to get ahead is with the help of someone above you. In the parlance of the police, this means “having a rabbi”. The show uses the term a number of times, but as is often the case, never explains its meaning.
It turns out that for the police, a rabbi is a superior who acts as a mentor and fixer for a subordinate, someone who helps the junior officer get promoted and/or receive a good assignment. Whenever I hear the term I laugh and wonder, how did a rabbi become the ticket to a cop’s career success?
I couldn’t find the origin for the law enforcement usage of the word rabbi, but according to a 1970 New York Times article, much of the police lingo is shrouded in mystery. Unlike street slang, cop terminology tends to stay consistent and unchanging over a long period of time. Perhaps the idea of rabbi as mentor came into use when immigrant working class Jews were entering the police force in the early 20th century.
These Jewish cops may have looked at their (real) rabbis as leaders who could help their flock of new Americans navigate the ever-changing world around them, so different from the old world they left behind. Similarly, a police officer needs a rabbi to survive and thrive in the department.
William Safire claims that the term originated in the 1950s in New York. He contrasts it with the usage of guru, an Indian religious figure, that has a similar meaning. A guru is someone you go to for advice and counsel, but he or she may not provide you with specific favors or direct help within a confined bureaucracy. As Safire describes it “guru is for outsiders, rabbi for insiders.”
Both terms represent the human ability to take something sacred and make it mundane. Sometimes we look to the heavens, but other times we have our feet planted in the day-to-day. The role of real gurus and rabbis is to provide spiritual teaching and guidance, but people also need someone to help them get that promotion they have always wanted.